International trash gets steamed before disposal

By Curt Yeomans


Harry Maugans remembers when he had to chase "hundreds and hundreds" of tiny crabs that had arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a flight from Korea.

The palm-sized crabs had not been cleared for entry into the United States before they arrived in Atlanta roughly a decade ago. Since they were not cleared by U.S. Customs officials before they arrived, the company Maugans co-founded, Atlanta International Waste Management, had to kill hundreds of crabs by steaming them to death.

As the crates were being loaded up to be disposed of, one box fell over and the crabs escaped.

"There were hundreds and hundreds of crabs everywhere," Maugans said. "Every time you picked one up, another one would pinch you."

Atlanta International Waste Management handles roughly 18 tons of trash from international flights every day.

The company was founded by Maugans and Hamp Vasson as Independent Air in 1970. The company, at that time, took members of the Atlanta Skylarks to destinations around the world.

When Eastern Air Lines created the first international flight out of Atlanta to Mexico City in the mid-1970's, a system had to be set up to handle the trash generated from the international flights.

Independent Air was allowed to dispose of its trash with the trash from Eastern's flights at first. As international traffic at the airport grew, however, Eastern eventually told Independent Air that it would need to find it's own place to dispose of its trash. Maugans and Vasson created Atlanta Waste Management in 1978 as a branch of Independent Air, as a result.

They now handle tons of trash from all international flights that arrive in Atlanta.

The items mainly come from trash such as apple cores, dust and used newspapers that are left on the planes after the flights. Other items handled by the company are items confiscated by officials from the U.S. Customs Department and Department of Agriculture. Every two or three months, the company handles items confiscated by the U.S. Wildlife Service.

In one year, Atlanta International Waste Management can handle roughly 4,000 tons of trash from international flights.

The items that stand out in the memories of Maugans and Vasson range from dead monkeys, to horse meat, to snake skin boots, to fruit infested by foreign insects.

"There is a sausage shop in the Frankfurt [Germany] airport, and we must have put them out of business, because we've destroyed so much of their meat when people arrive here with it," Maugans said. "Foreign meat is forbidden to enter this country without prior approval from the USDA."

Vasson said the airlines use plastic bags to hold the trash that is on the planes after an international flight. The bags are then placed in a large bin resembling a small trash dumpster. The bins are brought to the company's two Autoclaves, trash steaming devices located near one of the airport's taxiways across ,from the Delta Air Lines hangers.

After a bin is put in an Autoclave, the machine is closed and locked shut. The trash is then steamed at 250 degrees for 45 minutes while the pressure is increased to 100 pounds per square inch (PSI). At that temperature, any bacteria or unwanted insects are killed. When the trash is steamed, it comes out compacted, the plastic bags have melted, and it smells like boiled peanuts.

Afterward, it is removed from the Autoclave and taken to a landfill.

"About three years ago, we had a cargo plane land in Atlanta by mistake," Maugans said. "The plane was carrying 40,000 pounds of fresh okra from Panama. It was really fancy in these wooden boxes, but the okra had become infested with insects, so all of it had to be destroyed. We cooked okra for a week after that."

Vasson said there are two major diseases that must be detected, and prevented from gaining a foothold in the country - Bird Fever and Mad Cow Disease.

"If [Bird Fever] got established in this country, it would wipe out the nation's entire poultry supply virtually overnight," Vasson said.

Vasson's son, Barr, has worked for the company since 1990. He works on the Autoclaves daily. He sees, and smells, everything from the international flights that has to be destroyed.

"The smell doesn't bother me," Barr Vasson said. "The smell will get to me from time to time, but it's got to be something off, like rotting fish in August, or dead horse meat."